In mid-2019, two years into a withering drought, Ameliah Scott was doing relief cover for the sole full-time vet in Broken Hill, wishing she was back working the boundless farms of the NSW flood plains. The ‘flying vet’ had flown herself down to the country town at the start of the week in her Piper PA-28 Cherokee Arrow, and though her line of work was normally tough – she once had her teeth knocked out by a frightened cow – the pace at Broken Hill was breakneck.
On her very first day, three scheduled surgeries turned into five. By the Friday, she was utterly spent and only managed to eat half a sandwich. Ameliah was cleaning up after performing a caesarean on a bulldog – 11 puppies, one needing frantic resuscitation – when she looked up and saw the receptionist, Maddie, hovering in the doorway. The expression on Maddie’s face told Ameliah her longed-for break was to be deferred.
“I already felt like I was on autopilot with nothing left to give,” Ameliah recalls. But Maddie had a message she could not ignore. “A wildlife carer has just picked up an orphaned joey. The mum was hit by a car.”
Ameliah nodded stoically. On aching feet, she walked to the reception area to greet a woman cradling a pillowcase with a small, soft bump inside. The woman explained she had found the joey cold, but alive, on the side of the road. As Ameliah put her hand into the pillowcase, a little paw reached towards her, curled around her thumb, and held on tight.
“I guess it’s those moments, isn’t it?” Ameliah muses. “Those little moments of magic or kindness from an animal that make you go, oh yeah, we can keep pushing.”
The person who ran the local wildlife rescue group was out of town, so Ameliah said she would care for the orphan until they returned. She tucked the joey into her shirt and kept her close for the next three days and nights. Ameliah’s fatigue was forgotten. She enjoyed having a little “sidekick” to keep her company while she worked.
“It’s part of what we consider an everyday thing to do,” she explains. “Especially when you don’t have fancy humidifier cribs or heat wraps. Body heat is very efficient. You can do it with puppies when you get a runt from a litter that’s not going well. It’s the same as humans. That’s why they like to lie newborn babies on mum’s chest, because that all helps feed, comfort and regulate their temperature. There’s a big benefit.”
Four short years later, Ameliah is delivering that same level of care to the animals in an area of outback Australia roughly the size of England. She does everything from cow pregnancy tests to equine dentistry, using her beloved Cherokee Arrow to attend scheduled appointments. Because of this, she’s proudly known as The Flying Vet. She is the first and only vet to provide this sort of service, which has been her dream since she was knee-high to a dairy cow.
“When I was a kid, about 10 or 11, that’s when I decided I was going to be a vet for this area,” she says.
“I knew there was a calling for it and that it would be needed and no one else was doing it.”
Not long after, Sydney had the great big dust storms that sent the sun out of the sky. In that turn-of-the-century drought, I decided that was what I was going to do.”
She quickly came to understand that it would be necessary for her to fly from patient to patient. Young Ameliah did not see this as an obstacle. After all, her father and grandfather both had their pilot’s licences, and she had been named after Amelia Earhart. Yet when adults asked a young Ameliah what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she replied, “a flying vet”, her answer met with a lot of ‘that’s nice’ replies and vacant gazes. They had no idea “how determined a young girl could be”.
Born to fly
Ameliah grew up on the western NSW property she still lives on today. She’s the fifth generation of her family to call the 60,000-hectare expanse of land home, and with the arrival of daughter Lindsay, who is almost two, and son James, six months, she’s raising a sixth. The nearest town of White Cliffs has a population of only 200 people. If she needs to go to the supermarket, it’s a 530-kilometre round trip to Broken Hill.
The stories Ameliah shares of being an outback vet are sprinkled with peals of laughter. She recalls treating animals in the mud and the rain. Those are the times she says she was “seriously considering” another career. “You’d be mad not to. You think, oh, there are so many other jobs I could have had where I wouldn’t be putting my body and soul on the line.” It’s clear she’s not serious. Her anecdotes, which feature a very stinky goat, a menace of a rooster with an ill-timed crow, and the time she was drenched in an unmentionable substance that earned her the nickname ‘Dr Poo’, are all delivered with good humour. She can’t hide the fact she adores her work.
Having been roped into farm work from a young age, her kinship with animals came early, as did her understanding of how desperately her corner of Australia needs professionals. During her childhood, there was no vet in the area and farm life could be brutal.
A lot of farmers have no choice but to euthanise their ailing animals, particularly during a drought. “And that’s what I did a number of times too,” Ameliah says. During the drought of 2002, it fell to Ameliah and her brother, James, to check the dams and lakes on the farm and euthanise any sheep that had got stuck in the mud and were too weak to walk. It was an experience that fuelled her resolve to learn veterinary medicine.
She and James had their primary education via School of the Air. When Ameliah was nearing high-school age, her parents enrolled her in a Sydney boarding school. The day her father dropped her off was the first time she saw him cry. For a kid used to life on the land, boarding school was tough, and Ameliah became a target for bullies. But she understood boarding school was a means to an end – getting the grades she would need to get into university.
However, after her first year studying veterinary science at the University of Queensland, the unthinkable happened. James, who had just finished Year 12, was killed in a car accident.
After what she describes in her book, The Flying Vet, as the “tearing apart” of her soul, there was only one way Ameliah could live with her grief. “I resolved to make the most of my lot and live for the person who couldn’t.”
The reality of life as a large animal vet was a thrilling, exhausting blur. Ameliah pulled herself through her grief-stricken university years with the help and companionship of a Border Collie named Kay. She cut her teeth in regional communities, mastering procedures that could be physically and mentally taxing. Ameliah was taken under the wing of the senior vet, Sarah Archard, at a practice in Kerang, in Victoria, and her family of three kids and husband John. And, of course, there was the advice and guidance of her dad.
“He’s taught me that you can be kind and good but also don’t let people walk all over you. You’ve got to have a line somewhere that can’t be crossed and make it pretty obvious.” She pauses, then laughs. “Dad said, if you want to get somewhere in life, you need a little bit of bastard in you … But within reason. Treat people how they treat you. You can’t be a wilting daisy. ”
It would turn out to be an important lesson. Ameliah has had to deal with cantankerous pet owners and more than a little chauvinism throughout her career. And then there was the time she responded to an after-hours call, only to be met by a woman showing signs of ice addiction, eager to get inside the vet clinic with its store of drugs. Mostly, though, people are grateful to have a vet on hand.
Ameliah established herself as a mobile vet for the greater part of western NSW. Then, one evening, she had just returned from a long day’s work on her own property when a woman called in a state of panic. Her cows were dropping like flies. Thirty-five of her 250 cows had died in the past few days. Ameliah listened and deduced the cows were suffering from frothy bloat, a condition which occurs when formerly dry paddocks become green and lush after a downpour, and the cows overindulge.
First thing in the morning, Ameliah fired up her beloved Arrow and flew down to Marg and her bloated bovines. The case was an example of what can happen when a district hasn’t had access to a vet for a long time. Distressed that the bloat was killing her cows, Marg had tried an old “cure” of feeding her herd diesel, believing it would help. The opposite happened. About 15 cows had died from the diesel, not the bloat.
Happily, Ameliah was able to provide a quick treatment using a length of poly pipe, some water and bloat oil. Marg asked a lot of questions, eager to learn. Then Ameliah showed her how to perform the procedure herself.
“Education and training is a large part of what we do as vets.”
She can make tough decisions when needed but Ameliah also goes above and beyond for her four-legged friends. A self-confessed animal-hoarder, she has on more than one occasion opened her home to an animal in need, like the aged Burmese breeding cats who had nowhere to go when their owner suffered a stroke.
There was also the case of a little kitten whose owners couldn’t afford the specialist surgery it required. Ameliah cared for the kitten until the day of its appointment, when she personally delivered it to Melbourne. This being a city-bound mission, she had to leave the Arrow at home and travel via rail. It was only when she arrived at the station that she learnt animals weren’t allowed on trains. So she ditched the cat carrier, emptied out her handbag and slipped the tiny furball inside.
“Sitting in the carriage, I prayed our friend wouldn’t make a single meow. Thankfully, her silence lasted until well after the conductor had been through,” Ameliah says. Her new feline friend made a full recovery and eventually found a happy home with a surgical nurse.
Life has changed a little since the early days of Ameliah’s air-bound practice. Her long-term boyfriend, Brendan, proposed and in 2020 they exchanged vows under the gum trees on the edge of the lake on the Scott family property. Today they work there together. It was Broken Hill’s Pastor David Shrimpton, aka The Flying Padre, who married them and, soon after, when Lindsay was born, it was the Royal Flying Doctor Service that spirited a pregnant Ameliah to hospital. Remote parts of the country are heavily reliant on services that fly, Ameliah says, and though she’d love to expand her veterinary service, she’s not confident she’d be able to attract another vet who would be happy in such a far-flung corner of Australia.
“It would be nice if vets who wanted to work rurally were given the same incentives that doctors and nurses are,” she muses.
These days, Ameliah runs a booked-in service to her clients. She has structured her practice in such a way that she can protect time with her family.
“I don’t really do emergencies very often because I have a young family and two businesses to run, though I will if I can,” she says.
Plus, she has one helper pitching in around the place. At nearly two years old, Lindsay is already showing signs that she shares the family affinity for farm life.
“Lindsay’s very good at shooing the sheep now,” Ameliah laughs. “That’s one sentence she can say: ‘Shoo sheep!’ Whenever we’re going out in the paddock and she sees a sheep, it’s ‘Shoo sheep!’. She thinks we’re going to go mustering. She knows how to close gates. It’s not always the gate you want closed but that’s beside the point.” She laughs.
After focusing on her career for so long, these days, life is about balance. “Most nights, except when I’m on the road, I’m home doing bath and bedtime. I find that special. Most mornings, I do breakfast with her before I head off. For us, that’s important. That’s what we’re doing this all for really. For them,” Ameliah says.
After breakfast, it’s a quick round of hugs and then it’s back to the skies, and on to the next appointment. It’s a lot of land to cover, but Ameliah is well equipped, with her heart of gold, nerves of steel, red-dirt soles and two silver wings.
The Flying Vet by Ameliah Scott is out now through HarperCollins, $34.99.